Fabricating for an Exhibition: Jim Baxter and Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color
May 14, 2013
The exhibition Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color opened last month at the Renwick Gallery. Georgina Goodlander chatted with Jim Baxter, an exhibits specialist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who created architectural components inspired by Day's work to complement the pieces of furniture on view.
Eve Level: Tell us about your job. What do you do at the Museum?
Jim Baxter: As an Exhibits Specialist, my main job is to fabricate exhibition pedestals, cases, platforms and architectural components. I also install, maintain, and de-install art.
EL: How did you get into this kind of work: What's your background? Are you an artist?
JB: I studied art at the University of Maryland, specializing in sculpture. Finding that people were more apt to buy furniture than sculpture, I started building custom furniture. At the same time I worked for an art transport company, where I built crates and packed art for the Smithsonian and elsewhere. Through this company I made the contacts to help me get a job, first at the National Portrait Gallery, then at the Renwick Gallery. Now, after 38 years away from making art, I've started doing figurative ceramic sculpture and totally love it. I've found that modeling, or what I consider "building" the human figure is like constructing a piece of furniture. You need to have the same understanding of proportion, joinery (how the bones connect and move), balance, and grace.
EL: You recently created some architectural components for the exhibition Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. What did that involve?
JB: I started by meeting with the designer to establish what could be built in the limited time I had before the pieces needed to be installed, and what material should be used. I began the project by making an actual size mock-up of one of the units cut in half so everyone could see exactly how it would look in the gallery space. I worked from both the designer's drawings and actual photographs of each component. I then drew to scale the entire component on a Masonite backboard, noting the depths of the different layers and dimensions. Then I fabricated and glued the pieces to the backboard starting with the bottom layer and working up. The curves were first roughed out, then I refined them by eye and feel to give them a graceful flow.
EL: What challenges did you encounter in the Thomas Day project?
JB: Building the stair component was the biggest challenge since my shop is so small. Everything had to be laid out exactly for each of the four panels to fit together perfectly when installed.
EL: Do you have a favorite work in the Thomas Day exhibition?
JB: Thomas Day's newels are definitely my favorite even though we weren't able to get any for the show. (A newel, also called a central pole, is an upright post that supports the handrail of a stair banister.) I made one for the stair component based on photographs. They're so wonderfully whimsical and crazy. I think Day's creative imagination was truly let loose with his newels.
EL: Looking back, what has been your favorite project at the Museum?
JB: I can't think of a particular project that would be my favorite but two exhibitions really stand out. These were Ruth Duckworth (ceramic sculpture) and Sam Maloof. I had the opportunity to meet two of my favorite artists before they passed away. It was just a hand shake and a hello but one I'll never forget.
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